Paul G. Allen Family Foundation funding to help corals adapt to climate change

4 June 2021

AIMS research into fast-tracking the adaptation of corals to warming oceans has received a welcome boost from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation through their latest round of international grants to help coral reefs resist climate change.

Professor Madeleine van Oppen’s research on speeding up heat adaptation in the corals’ symbiotic microalgae has demonstrated the method can improve heat tolerance in coral larvae. Now, thanks to the additional funding provided by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, van Oppen and her team will move their investigations from the lab into the field to further develop the approach.

“These symbiotic microalgae called Symbiodiniaceae, are crucial to coral animals. But when conditions become too stressful, particularly under warm conditions, they are lost from the coral, causing the coral to bleach” Prof van Oppen said.

“Over the last few years, we have demonstrated that if we isolate the microalgae, culture them over successive generations while gradually raising the temperature, we can increase their overall tolerance to heat.

“Most recently, we’ve shown if these heat tolerant microalgae are introduced into coral larvae, the larvae also become more resilient to heat,” van Oppen said.

The method is termed ‘directed evolution’, and is part of a suite of approaches called human assisted evolution, aimed at speeding up natural evolutionary processes to help corals adapt and become more resilient in the face of climate change.

coral fragments in tank for symbiont experiment
Coral fragments used to investigate directed evolution of microalgal symbionts. Photo: AIMS/Marie Roman

As well as field testing, the next phase of research will investigate the method on more coral and microalgal species, as well as trial the approach on adult corals.

“We are incredibly grateful for this funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to help us ‘level up’ the science which is crucial to understand how it can be implemented as part of reef adaptation efforts around the world.”

The US-based philanthropic organisation Paul G Allen Family Foundation has long supported Prof van Oppen’s research into assisted evolution. In 2013, the Paul G. Allen Ocean Challenge provided initial funding for Professor van Oppen and Dr Ruth Gates at the University of Hawaii for their idea to assist the evolution of coral reef tolerance to heat and acidification. This funding was increased shortly after into a full-scale project to develop and test the viability of assisted evolution.

Investigating how to assist coral adaptation to warming seas is vital when considering reef resilience and restoration interventions, because they increase the likelihood of restored reefs surviving marine heatwaves, which are already occurring more frequently as a result of climate change.

“But we also need to develop a toolbox to help distribute these corals over an ecosystem the size of the Great Barrier Reef. Scientists at AIMS with collaborating institutions are investigating many ways we can not only help corals adapt, but how we can help the Reef at scale,” van Oppen said.

Divers collecting corals
Dr Line Bay and colleague collecting coral
samples to test for natural heat resilience

Searching for naturally heat tolerance corals

AIMS’ Dr Line Bay is part of an international team to also receive founding from the latest suite of grants from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation - finding corals naturally resilient to heat.

“Corals aren’t all the same – we know some colonies have evolved naturally to be more heat tolerant and resilient,” Dr Bay said.

“This new funding allows us to head out on a global journey to find these corals and in doing so, identify common signatures of heat tolerance at the genetic level to help conservation and restoration efforts.”

The international team led by the University of Konstanz, use a standard approach to identify the corals in the field – by way of a rapid ‘stress-test’ using a specially designed portable aquaria facility. In Australia, this is based on technology developed for the National Sea Simulator called ‘SeaSim-in-a-box’.

“After collecting samples of corals, we immediately place them under the same stressful conditions, where we can quickly identify corals more resilient to bleaching.

“From here, we learn more about their physiology and genetic makeup - and even the microbial symbiont community - which influences their resilience, then compare these results across the globe to find common signatures of heat tolerance.”

Identifying heat resilient corals has a range of applications for reef conservation and restoration efforts.

“This funding will provide data to not only help us understand what makes a coral more heat tolerant; it will help prioritise conservation efforts of resilient populations across the world, and even help identify corals for selective breeding efforts.”

seasim in a box on vesssel
The specially-designed 'SeaSim in a box' helping researchers test for heat resilience in coral samples while in the field.

A global drive to help coral reefs resist climate change

Prof van Oppen’s research and the Global Search for Heat Tolerant Corals project are two of four projects awarded by the Paul G Allen Family Foundation. The other research teams receiving funding are:

  • Professor Peter Harrison and team at Southern Cross University are focused on enhancing the survival rate of juvenile corals to restore reefs. They will scale up restoration of degraded coral reefs by clearing degraded reefs of seaweed, providing additional feeding to larvae, and settling them in new designs.
  • Dr. Crawford Drury and team at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii, are harnessing selective breeding of corals to pursue additional methods of speeding their natural evolutionary processes. They will determine if reproduction of conditioned corals can produce climate tolerant offspring.

 

Prof van Oppen’s Human Assisted Evolution project is co-funded by the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, (funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation), the Australian Research Council, the University of Melbourne and Macquarie University.

The ‘Global Search for Heat Tolerant Corals’ is supported by funding from Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, Fondation Pacifique, NOAA, DFG CBASS, University of Konstanz and Ocean Kind.